New Dragons coach Anthony Griffin’s reputation as a hard taskmaster has enabled him to scrap the dreaded pre-season “fat club” and introduce a breakfast club for St George Illawarra players among a host of changes to their training routines.
After hearing about early morning training sessions that Penrith players deemed to be overweight had to endure during Griffin’s tenure with the Panthers, the entire Dragons squad returned after their end-of-season break in good condition.
“We don’t have a fat club this year, everyone is in good nick,” winger Jordan Pereira said. “The coaching staff might have their own outlook on it but they are probably putting us through enough work that we don’t need to have an extra club for the high skin fold folks.”
Prop Kaide Ellis, who feared having to find work as a carpenter in Dubbo until Griffin phoned him before the resumption of pre-season training five weeks ago, has previously played under him at Penrith and said St George Illawarra players had been determined to meet his expectations.
“I think they heard a few rumours about what he used to be like back in the day and that scared the guys a fair bit,” Ellis said. “He used to do a lot of early morning clubs if you weren’t fit enough and all of that sort of stuff, just to drill standards.
“I think a few of the boys heard about all of them sort of things and probably knuckled down a bit more than they would have.”
Under Griffin, the Dragons train five days per week and start at 6am on the two hardest days.
They start later on the other days to give them longer to recover, while once a week the players are randomly selected in up to five groups to meet for breakfast at cafes in Wollongong.
Mobile phones are banned and any player who breaches the rule has to shout the rest of his group.
“Once a week we start at 7.30am just to have breakfast,” Pereira said. “They split us into four or five different groups of random teammates and then we all pick a café together to go and get a coffee. Every week it is a completely different group.”
Ellis said: “When you are here it is all just about footy and you don’t get a spare five minutes to get to know someone so once a week, young and old mixed together, you leave your phones at home and go for breakfast and a coffee, just to get away and learn about one another.”
After being handed his debut by Griffin at Penrith in 2018, Ellis believes the former Broncos and Panthers mentor has mellowed and he said assistant coaches Matthew Elliott and Peter Gentle complimented his coaching style.
“Just the one thing we have noticed is that he is a bit more relaxed,” Ellis said. “His relationship with the players was good back then but it’s a bit more now because he used to try and assert himself and be a bit loud, and kick and scream a bit, which works but now he has sort of toned it back a bit and is a bit more relaxed.
“Sometimes you wake up and you feel like a marathon runner but the hard work is necessary – they don’t do it for the sake of it. It’s hard at the time but in and around training they are trying to make it a bit less taxing on your body so when it is time to run it is on.
“They have managed it well with days off and in and around training. The days aren’t crazy long so you get time at home to recover and see your family.”
Despite the St George Illawarra players spending five months abiding by the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols in which they were effectively only able to leave home to train or play, Pereira said they were happy to be back training together.
He also said there was a better atmosphere at training under the new coaching staff after two years of intense scrutiny on the club over the position of former coach Paul McGregor.
“I think when we were in the COVID bubble, because they were the only people we could see, you get along with them so much more because there is no other form of interaction so you need them,” he said. “When we were out of it I kind of missed them.
“I feel like everyone comes into training and they walk through the locker room and everyone is happy. We are all happy to be here and we are all excited. We know we are in for an absolute slaughterhouse of a running session but we are still turning up happy to be here.
“I don’t know what they have done that has caused that but I have noticed it is something that hasn’t been here in the past. Now we are excited and it is contagious.”